Carey Mulligan has revealed that she dislikes the “strong woman” label in Hollywood because it suggests that female characters are “inherently weak”.
The British actress plays the lead as a determined women’s rights activist in upcoming drama Suffragette but does not believe society is equal almost a century after the film’s events.
Mulligan, best known for Far From the Madding Crowd and The Great Gatsby, still finds herself offered far more parts as love interests than protagonists.
“You don’t say to men, ‘You played another really strong man’. The idea that women are inherently weak and we’ve identified the few strong ones to tell stories about…is mad,” she told Elle for its feminism issue.
“A lot of the stuff I read is playing so-and-so’s wife, so-and-so’s girlfriend. That’s not where the story is: I want to play him.”
Mulligan added that she does not dream of a world “run by women”, but is a firm believer in equality, something she thinks humanity is “still so far from”.
The 30-year-old is among a host of leading ladies to speak out about sexism and ageism in the film industry. Patricia Arquette called for pay equality in her Oscars acceptance speech, Maggie Gyllenhaal railed against being deemed too old to play a 55-year-old man’s lover aged just 37 and this week, Jessica Chasten denounced the “sexualisation” of women in superhero movies.
The strongest female characters in TV and film
The strongest female characters in TV and film
1/21 Elsa in Frozen (Idina Menzel)
This Disney hit does not involve Prince Charming coming to the rescue of a princess in distress. Instead, it focuses on the bond between two brave sisters who are far from defined by the men in their lives. Then of course there is the anthemic "Let It Go", sung triumphantly by Elsa as she decides to claim ownership of her identity and accept herself for who she truly is, regardless of hate from others.
2/21 Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones (Emilia Clarke)
The most credible contender for the Iron Throne is the diminutive yet fiercely powerful Daenerys.. She conquers armies, kingdoms and hearts by sticking to her principles, inspiring loyalty and remaining likeable as Khaleesi (Queen) despite making tough decisions to retain her stranglehold on the nations she commands.
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3/21 Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (Jennifer Lawrence)
Katniss draws upon her own resources for survival. Easy to underestimate on appearance, she more than proves herself with courage, intelligence and an impressive ability to think outside the box.
4/21 Ellen Ripley in Alien (Sigourney Weaver)
Often considered one of the best female protagonists of all-time, Ripley was one of the first heroines not to be defined by the men around her or by her relationship to them. The film was also praised for challenging gender roles.
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5/21 Peggy Olson in Mad Men (Elisabeth Moss)
Peggy is promoted to become the first female writer at Don Draper's advertising firm since World War II. She hates double standards in the treatment of men and women and is a fierce gender equality supporter. Not just an innocent and pretty face.
6/21 Ryan Stone in Gravity (Sandra Bullock)
Dr Stone is a broken woman on the path to recovery after the sudden death of her 4-year-old daughter. Stranded in space, she realises the value of life and begins to make peace with herself after surviving the worst possible odds.
7/21 Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep)
This 2011 movie follows the life of the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century and what an intimidating figure she was.
8/21 Claire Underwood in House of Cards (Robin Wright)
The First Lady is TV’s finest example of dogged determination. Claire is steely, cold and often unlikeable, but she fights to the last and won’t let anyone get in the way of the Underwood’s plans for world domination. She’s clever, calculating and a rare example of a powerful woman in total control.
9/21 Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (Jennifer Ehle)
Notably strong-willed and independent for Jane Austen's time, Elizabeth is determined not to give in to her mother's desperation to find all her daughters rich husbands. Yes she ends up with one - but she marries him for love and they form a mutual, equal understanding and respect for each other.
10/21 Olivia Pope in Scandal (Kerry Washington)
Crisis manager and revered fixer Olivia runs her own consulting firm and her employees are "gladiators in suits". Fast-thinking and efficient, she is one of few main female protagonists on TV who are "emotionally strong, professional powerful and and personally complicated". Olivia is intense, feminine and a style trend-setter.
11/21 Cheryl Strayed in Wild (Reese Witherspoon)
Faced with huge psychological and physical challenges, Cheryl is determined to save herself from her demons and sets out on a 1,100 mile hike to do just that. It's hard not to warm to her heroism and self-motivation.
12/21 Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey (Maggie Smith)
The Dowager Countess rules the roost at Downton, no matter what her stubborn son Lord Grantham says or does. She can shut down any argument with a brilliantly acerbic one-liner (see some of the best here) and is well-known as a force to contend with - Violet certainly knows her own mind and isn't afraid to speak it. Rumours of her leaving sent shivers down our spines.
13/21 Red in Orange is the New Black (Kate Mulgrew)
One thing Red has in bucket loads is respect from the other prisoners in this Netflix original series. She runs a smuggling business but draws the line at drugs, and makes a plan to have Mendez removed when he tries to force her into changing her rules. Red also helps some inmates over drug addiction - she's pretty kickass.
14/21 Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Rooney Mara)
Lisbeth is a world class computer hacker and a rape survivor. She takes special pleasure in exposing and punishing men who abuse women. Compelling for her unconventionality, many have speculated that Lisbeth has Asperger's Syndrome.
15/21 Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street (Julie Hesmondhalgh)
Hayley was a non-confrontational, boundlessly kind and extremely resilient "fan favourite" on the soap. Corrie's first transgender character, she made the transition to a woman from Harold in her early twenties, facing many social challenges. Hayley's biggest hurdle came with a terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis last year, when she made the incredibly hard decision to end her life on her terms.
16/21 Hermione Granger in Harry Potter (Emma Watson)
She might not be everybody's cup of tea but Hogwarts student Hermione is hard-working, tenacious, compassionate and stands her own alongside best friends Harry and Ron on their adventures.
17/21 Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska)
Charlotte Bronte's classic heroine is highly individualised for her time and determined to assert her own identity within a male-dominated society. She only marries Mr Rochester once she is sure that their love is built on equality.
18/21 Mulan in Mulan (Ming-Na Wen)
Mulan takes her father's place in the army because he is too frail to fight. She proves herself more capable than any man in Shang's charge and saves China. Really quite impressive.
19/21 Patsey in 12 Years a Slave (Lupita Nyong'o)
Nyong'o won an Oscar for her portrayal of gritty young slave girl Patsey in Steve McQueen's harrowing drama. She retains her hard-working attitude and will of defiance despite suffering relentless abuse at the hands of her owners.
20/21 Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts)
This true story follows the life of an unemployed single mother of three, who fought tirelessly against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company after discovering their dangerous secret. As the film's tagline reads: 'She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees'.
21/21 Jane Wilde in The Theory of Everything (Felicity Jones)
Sure, Jane Wilde dedicated much of her life to her genius husband Stephen Hawking, but this film focuses on their marriage ahead of his career. Jane is strong enough to realise the depth of her feelings for a man given just two years to live and determined to face the odds
Last month, George Clooney encouraged screenwriters to rejig major roles penned for men so that women could play them too.
The full interview with Mulligan appears in the November issue of Elle, on sale tomorrow.Reuse content